The PCI, like all denominations, was originally a plant. Irish Presbyterian church historian Finlay Holmes notes that the PCI is essentially an immigrant church, albeit one that is 370 years old. Its first Presbytery and fledgling congregations in the early 1640s were organized to minister to immigrant Scots. This continued into the early eighteenth century, when the strength of Presbyterianism in the North East can be attributed to the influx of Scottish immigrants post-1690, while the establishment of quite successful Presbyterian congregations in Dublin and other Southern towns, similarly can be traced to the immigration of English Independents. However, there is evidence of an early attraction of the native Irish to Presbyterianism, particularly around Templepatrick where many Irish names are found on the earliest church records, and one member Jeremy O’Cuinn became the first native Irishman to be ordained to Presbyterian ministry. One Anglican observer reported that “Presbyterians were having some success in converting Roman Catholics through preaching to them in Irish” and warned that “if the established Church does not use the same methods then there will be a great increase of converts to Presbyterianism.”
In fact, PCI missionary enterprise tended to elicit far greater condemnation from the Protestant establishment than from the Catholics, at this stage. Holmes comments that “outreach of Presbyterianism into the south and west of Ireland was particularly resented by the Church of Ireland.” One Anglican clergyman referred to Presbyterians “enlarging their borders” and sending out missionaries “into several places of this kingdom where they have had no call, nor any congregation.” The irony is not lost that this remark emanates from a church that had just sought to establish itself as “an English church” by legal and military coercion throughout Ireland!
Holmes believes that the Anglicans’ view of PCI success in this area was exaggerated, although preaching in the Irish language was not uncommon in the seventeenth century. Efforts to revive it, however, in the first decades of the eighteenth century proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, here we see the first signs of a Presbyterian heart to reach out to the neighboring people rather than to simply minister to their own tribe.
Notwithstanding, the PCI began as a church for Scottish immigrants, and this has had implications for how the denomination has struggled to conceive of planting as a missional activity. It has been noted in an earlier section how new churches within the PCI in Northern Ireland have almost always followed population shift. This is also noted by John Dunlop in one of the few books published about the contemporary Presbyterian experience in Ireland. He writes: “It has always been the custom for the Presbyterian Church to follow the people. First it was to the country, then to the urban centers, and then to the suburbs of those cities. In this sense, the Presbyterian Church is a predominantly ethnic church, mainly of the Scots-Irish.”
In the majority Roman Catholic Republic of Ireland, the situation is historically not as different as might initially appear. In a 2001 dissertation looking at potential new church developments in the greater Dublin area, Presbyterian planter Keith McCrory notes: “Few of our modern day congregations in the greater Dublin area were formed in response to the spiritual needs of those in the indigenous local population. Most were formed in response to the needs of Scottish or Northern Presbyterians who had moved into the area wishing to worship in their usual Presbyterian form.” He mentions the “Scots churches” in Abbey Street, Dublin; Carlow: and Kingstown/Dun Laoghaire. The last of these is instructive in terms of Scots-Irish identity in that, post-independence – long after the town had officially changed its name to Dun Laoghaire – the congregation continued to call itself ‘Kingstown’: a dispute that went as far as the floor of the National Parliament in 1944.
Respected Irish historian Desmond Bowen makes a similar point regarding the Presbyterian mindset: “Although Presbyterians of Ulster were willing to help Roman Catholics during the famine years, they were not urgently concerned about converting their traditional foes. Wherever the Presbyterians founded churches they were more apt to compete with the local parson for the allegiance of the local Protestant population than they were to preach to the papists…. An extension of the mission beyond Ulster’s borders had comparatively little appeal to Presbyterians.” Methodists were actually much more successful. Holmes writes: “Presbyterians were not in the vanguard of the crusade, but were more concerned at first to support or revive Presbyterian congregations in the south and west of Ireland.” This changed somewhat soon afterwards due to the evangelistic work in the West undertaken by John Edgar, whose call for personnel and funds in the pamphlet The Cry from Connaught was particularly influential.
The fact that there is only minimal evidence of a Presbyterian concern for evangelising Catholics is all the more significant when one considers the accusations, still prevalent, of “souperism” – an Irish version of “rice Christians” – whereby it is alleged that famine relief was either dependent on or, at least expected to result in, conversions from Catholicism to Protestantism.
Accusations and counter-accusations continue to this day regarding the extent to which famine relief undertaken by Protestants, including Presbyterians, was linked with proselytism and an expectation that the recipients would change their religion. In his seminal biography of the famous famine-time conservative Roman Catholic Cardinal Paul Cullen, Bowen attributes the Irish counter-reformation to Cullen’s disgust at proselytism [“jumping”] in the West; saying of one Galway parish that it was “no longer a parish of Catholics, it has literally become a parish of Jumpers and Bible Readers.”
However, R. J. Rodgers has highlighted how, regardless of popular perception, this was never the official policy of the Presbyterian missions in the nineteenth century. In fact, the church’s Irish Mission “…repeatedly condemned as ‘offensive,’ ‘sinister,’ ‘mean and immoral’ and ‘dastardly in the extreme’ any ambition that was fixed by merely proselytizing intentions, sustained often with corrupt inducements and satisfied with a mere increase in nominal adherents.”
As early as 1835, a Presbyterian publication acknowledged that some previous mission to Roman Catholics had been “…abusive and irritating, and had pleaded for the adoption of a more sympathetic and understanding attitude.” Indeed one finds around this time, in internal documents, acknowledgements of the church’s ineffectiveness in their engagement with the majority population. In a fascinating piece of correspondence with the American Presbyterians on the issue of slavery (in the year, incidentally, that the renowned theologian, Charles Hodge, was Moderator), the Americans wondered if the Irish church, in questioning their American brothers’ adequate opposition of slavery, had done enough themselves to exercise their responsibilities towards their Catholic neighbors. The Irish in reply thanked them “for their remonstrance” and said that they wished “to be humbled before God for our culpable remissness in the work of evangelizing the Roman Catholic population of Ireland.”
This negligence had been noted some years earlier by a contributor to a debate at the 1833 Synod of Dublin. He asked: “What have the Protestant churches been doing during the last two centuries, for the benefit of the vast population amongst which the Providence of God has placed them?” He bemoaned that there was a belief that their evangelism was “…to be confined to the people of their own denomination exclusively and that any effort on behalf of the hundreds and thousands perishing for lack of knowledge, outside their own pale, was not to be attempted.”
In more recent years, former Presbyterian Moderator Trevor Morrow, who pastored in the Republic of Ireland for more than thirty years, set out in a Catholic journal his vision for reformed witness in Ireland, which included his understanding of what it meant for him as reformed minister to seek the “reformation of the church Catholic.”